Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is an immigrant story that begins in 1913 - a rags to riches tale that spans 75 years. The book weaves between time periods as the main character, Lillian Dunkle (ne Malka Treynovsky), recalls her colorful life.

We'd been in America just three months when the horse ran over me. I don't know exactly how old I was. Six perhaps? When I was born, they didn't keep records. All I remember was running down Hester Street, looking for Papa. Overhead, a bleached sky was flanked by rooftops, iron fire escapes. Pigeons circled, street peddlers shouted, chickens squawked; there was the strange rickety calliope of the organ-grinder. Great upheavals of dust swirled around the pushcarts, making the shop signs swing back and forth like flags. I heard a clop, then I was tumbling. There was a split-second flash of hoof, then a white-hot bolt of pain. Then: nothing. (p. 3)

By a strange twist of fate, the horse that nearly crushes Lillian is pulling a penny-ices cart. When her own parents abandon her, it is the driver of this cart, Mr. Dinello, who brings Lillian home from the hospital. His wife grudgingly takes her into the family and she comes to work side by side with Mrs. Dinello in the ice cream business.

One of the many strengths of this novel lies in its character development. Susan Gilman has created a character who is unlikeable, and yet, with whom one feels great empathy. Although she becomes a great ice cream tycoon, Lillian would rather drink hard liquor than eat the product she manufactures. In a sense, ice cream is a metaphor for the happiness that always stays a bit out of reach. As she explains, "As soon as I began to lick the spoon, the ice cream inevitably started to turn to liquid...Sitting alone in the drafty storefront, staring down at the dirty spoon in my hand, I wondered why everything I adored disappeared so quickly...Ice cream? All it did was intensify my grief." p. 99

Aside from analyzing a larger-than-life character, Gilman also educates the reader in some little-known facts. Ice cream production was intrinsically linked to major historical events. For example, Prohibition was a boon for the ice cream industry. There were more ice cream parlors than speakeasies and many ice cream parlors were former bars.

Also, during World War II, the U.S. government became the largest ice cream producer in history over the course of the war. There really was an Ice Cream Barge, commissioned in 1945 at a cost of one million dollars, which pumped out 1500 gallons an hour. Its sole purpose was to supply US troops in the Pacific with ice cream.

These are but a few of the many fascinating bits of trivia that are sprinkled throughout the book. If you love historical fiction or are looking for an engaging and enjoyable read, seek no further. And buy a pint of Haagen Das (another immigrant success story) to make your reading experience even more delectable.

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